“Conventional” terrorism, as we have known it for the last few years, has abated and not just due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is because governments have spent considerable amounts of money on counterterrorism and on global efforts to stem the transnational flow of weapons, funds and terrorists. Moreover, the defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda have robbed both these groups of the physical wherewithal and leadership to direct massive publicity-generating attacks.
Covid-19 has meant strict lockdowns and advanced forms of techno-surveillance, which has further hampered the aims of would-be terrorists. Except for last year’s coordinated terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, the world has not witnessed the sort of terrorist incidents across the globe like those seen in the 2000s. Yet, this does not mean that newer forms of terrorist attacks will not rear their ugly head in the months and years to come.
The factors that fuel terrorism are still very much in play worldwide. Under the guise of combatting Covid-19, governments from Tanzania to Colombia and from India to Sudan are clamping down on civil liberties. This will fray the unwritten contract between societies and law enforcement agencies, the bedrock upon which intelligence agencies rely to block terrorist incidents.
In some instances, ruling regimes have actively fed identity politics and fueled ancient tribal hatreds as a way of diverting attention away from their mishandling of the pandemic. This has irreparably damaged the social fabric in these countries and could be fertile ground for terrorism.
In India, since the start of the pandemic, senior members of the ruling party and government-friendly media have been busy vilifying the country’s 200 million-strong Muslim minority as being “super-spreaders” of the disease. This was on the back of anti-Muslim violence in Delhi in February. Elsewhere, the police allegedly stood by while rioters ran amok or, in some instances, joined in the rioting themselves.
In Sri Lanka, government agencies openly insulted the country’s Muslim community by spiriting away and cremating the bodies of community members who died from the coronavirus. This lays the groundwork for long-lasting fissures that extremists will be more than happy to exploit.
In other countries, localized grievances will continue to flare up. These will take the form of insurgencies. We see examples of this in northern Mozambique. Years of government neglect, corruption, discrimination and heavy-handed tactics toward the local population have given rise to what is now a full-blown insurgency. The insurgents in Mozambique have sworn allegiance to ISIS, although this may be nothing more than a branding exercise for the insurgents to burnish their credentials and perhaps attract more recruits and funding. There may even be more localized acts of terror perpetrated by lone-wolf terrorists, such as the recent knife attack in Paris.
However, the most serious threat of transnational terror today comes from white nationalist outfits in Western countries. In America, there is a curious convergence between white extremist groups and conspiracy theorists that routinely peddle anti-Semitic theories, gun rights defenders and anti-maskers. Several have shown up to mount counter-protests against Black Lives Matters protesters. Donald Trump has, on several occasions, praised white nationalists.
There is a growing realization among intelligence agencies in the Western world about the transnational threat posed by white extremist groups. This was particularly apparent after the 2019 attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attacker derived much of his ideology from white nationalist ideas emanating from the US.
More recently, Germany disbanded one of its elite special forces units because if was full of far-right extremists who were hoarding explosives and ammunition as part of a plan to carry out terrorist acts or overthrow the government. Indeed, a German minister called far-right terror the biggest threat to Germany’s democracy. Over the last two years, far-right terrorists have attacked a synagogue, assassinated a politician and murdered nine immigrants.
A recent UN Security Council report warned of the dangers of the pandemic fueling extremism. Close to a billion school-age children are at home and many adults are unemployed. There has been a reported increase in online browsing of extremist content, particularly as Covid-related anxiety fuels widely swirling conspiracy theories. The inability of social media companies like Facebook to stem the flow of extremist content is particularly galling. A recent investigation by The Wall Street Journal, for example, claimed that senior Facebook executives in India chose not to ban inflammatory content posted by a member of the ruling party. The report alleged that Facebook’s management in India did not want to anger the government in New Delhi.
Since the beginning of the global pandemic, the world may not have witnessed the sort of terrorism which causes mass casualties, such as the September 11 attacks or the London bombings. But that doesn’t mean the terrorism has left us entirely. Covid-19 has consumed policymakers with thinking about the future of government and economies. But they must also seriously ponder whether the pandemic has flattened the terrorism curve.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.